In a recent interview with CNN, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins confessed that God - the "third rail" of rock and roll - is the future of the genre, its "great unexplored territory." When asked what he would say to "Christian rockers" who are already busy exploring God in music, he admitted: "Make better music. Personally, my opinion: I think Jesus would like better bands...hey, Christian rock, if you wanna be good, stop copying U2." (Stop copying Mumford & Sons while we're at it.)
Corgan is right on both counts. Despite the fertile ground that exists in rock music for exploring the mystery of God, "Christian rock" has a sordid history of either aping the style of the moment like a creative parasite, or resorting to the old standby of the sacred doused in the schmaltzy - one of five good reasons to kill it. (Rome Reports reported that Matt Maher played a "moving song" during adoration at World Youth Day 2013. Seeing 3 million gathered in adoration was definitely moving, but I don't know about the song.) In short, Christians take on the mantle of "Christian singer" rather than simply singing as Christians.
What Flannery O'Connor said about novel-writing applies just as much to music-making:
Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. His feeling about this may have been made more definite by one of those Manichean-type theologies which sees the natural world as unworthy of penetration. But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is.
To be a good Christian novelist, O'Connor argued, meant first and foremost to be a good novelist - to write well about the world we all inhabit. But Christians can't compartmentalize their faith when the pen goes to the paper either; O'Connor's stories penetrated universal human realities, but always with an eye toward the action of grace. The only rogue worse than a "Christian musician" peddling faith is the musician who consciously expunges it from the heart, the wellspring of all good art.
Nothing says we are doomed to these two options - cheapening music or cheapening faith - when a Christian picks up a guitar. And just as Abraham bargained with God to not destroy a city for the sake of just ten souls, here I bargain with the discerning music fan who would otherwise stamp out any intersection of ritual and radio.
Before you make up your mind, here are ten singing Christians who don't suck. In fact, they're amazing.
Before you make up your mind, here are ten singing Christians who don't suck. In fact, they're amazing.
10. Mavis Staples
Fans of the dearly departed Civil Wars should take a good long look at this veteran duo out of Ohio, praised by USA Today for their "mature, graceful and sad songs" which "showcase Bergquist’s achingly beautiful voice." Paste Magazine named their album The Long Surrender one of the Top 50 Best Records of the year, and other album titles (Till We Have Faces, Drunkard's Prayer) reveal a deep-rooted religious imagination that fuels their search for beauty in brokenness. "I think that stems from an unwillingness to divide the world into sacred and secular, or into the broken and unbroken," they say in one interview. "We're all broken, and it's all sacred."
Psychedelic, Southern gothic, folky metal - it's hard to pinpoint or label David Eugene Edwards' unique and compelling sound, which has earned him a spotlight on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series; but the lyrics are nothing if not Biblical. Pitchfork, in an 8.5/10 review of his album Consider The Birds, notes: "So, if like me you don't believe in God, then why listen? Well, because unlike empty teen angst or bitchy navel gazing, Edwards has a certified message and even with the spikes and thorns and judgments his work emerges from a compelling, otherworldly mindset." Wovenhand's latest album, The Laughing Stalk, cranks that otherworldly catharsis to volume 11, especially on brainmelters like "Long Horn" and "King O King."
Kurt Cobain once donned a bizarre shirt with a wide-eyed alien-thing saying "Hi How Are You," introducing much of the music world to Daniel Johnston, a manic-depressive cartoonist and cult hero who recorded a series of lo-fi cassettes about love, pain, and God between trips to an insane asylum. Johnston, who was once arrested for drawing Christian fish inside the statue of liberty, was raised as a Christian fundamentalist, and his songs - covered by the likes of Tom Waits, Beck, and Mayer Hawthorne -consistently return to themes of spiritual warfare. His wild life is the subject of the 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but he continues to tour and perform across the world. "I believe in God, and I certainly believe in the devil." Johnston says. "There's certainly a devil, and he knows my name."
Sufjan Stevens has certainly kept fans guessing for his decade-long career: pumping out box sets of both classic and crazy Christmas songs; sporting butterfly wings during elaborate sets; and recording a 25-minute long song for an album inspired by a schizophrenic with apocalyptic visions. But critics have had plenty to rave about. His 2005 album Illinoise was hailed as one of the best albums of the year and even decade by NPR, Amazon, Pitchfork, Spin, and Rolling Stone. What these critics (often grudgingly) are forced to admit is that his work, from the melancholic Seven Swans to his collaboration with Brooklyn minister-and-wife duo The Welcome Wagon, is consistently Christological. "I think the Good News is about grace and hope and love and a relinquishing of self to God," Stevens says. "And I think the Good News of salvation is kind of relevant to everyone and everything."
Over the past 16 years, Seattle singer-songwriter and Damien Jurado has migrated from Sub Pop to Secretly Canadian (home to Gardens & Villa) and released a dozen albums in the process. His Christian faith reveals itself in his latest album Maraqopa, especially in songs like "Life Away from the Garden" and "This Time Next Year." But Jurado is quick to emphasize his refusal to use music as some kind of platform for religious messaging. "I absolutely detest and despise Christian music," he says. "My music is music. It's something I do. I'm glorifying God in my songs by being the best performer I can, and as one who believes in God I'm glorifying Him with my life, and being the best example to my brothers and sisters, the people around me. And that's really it." Jurado will be featured on a track on Moby's next album, and has just released a trailer for a new album in 2014.
Fans of Dostoevsky's classic The Brothers Karamazov will instantly perk up at the sound of this band's name. In a video interview, frontman Tim Wilson notes that their music contains "a lot of spirituality, a lot of our world view," and that the parallel with Dostoevsky was something that "just happened naturally." Like Jurado, Ivan & Alyosha hail from Seattle and have been around for quite a few years, but have just recently released their debut album All The Times We Had (which features Aimee Mann on the title track). And, like Jurado, the group is well-aware of the failings of the Christian music genre, and is just focused on making the best art they can. "I think we have to be smart about it, because of what Christian culture has done over the last 30 years in art," Tim laments. "At the end of the day, I’m not sitting there tweaking lyrics and changing things so it doesn't sound a certain way though. I just write what I want and it usually comes out all right."
From growing up Gainesville, Florida, to impersonating James Brown as "Black Velvet" in nightclubs across the country, to recording his debut album at the tender age of 62 in Brooklyn, Charles Bradley has a veritable odyssey behind him - one recounted in a recent documentary, Charles Bradley: Soul of America. Bradley even worked as a carpenter, a stint that reminds him of a certain someone. "You know Jesus was a carpenter," Bradley says. "And he said to build your cross and follow me. That's why I liked being a carpenter. When things were going wrong, and I was saying that I can't make no money in an honest way, I always remember what Jesus said." Bradley's faith-filled fortitude is right at home at Daptone Records, where gospel artists like Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens and The Coco Mamas are also busy recording gems.
2. Bill Fay
Bill Fay emerged as something of a cult hero in the 70s, drawing comparisons to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan with his first two albums. Unable to make ends meet as a musician though, Fay faded into obscurity, continuing to write music privately. The result, just his fourth album in over forty years, is a beautiful collection of meditations on the finite and infinite, the concrete and cosmic, the granular and grandiose. The heart of the poetic genius of Life Is People, though, is a mystically Christian view of the world. "There is a hill near Jerusalem that wild flowers grow upon," he sings in "There Is a Valley." "Flowers don't speak, but they speak to each other of a crucifixion...every city brawl, every fist fight, every bullet from a gun, is written upon the palms of the Holy One." Fay's album reached number 15 on Billboard's chart of Heatseekers Albums.
1. Josh Garrels
As amazing as the above nine artists are, none have affected me quite like Josh Garrels. This spiritual minstrel grew up experimenting with hallucinogenics, skateboarding, forming punk bands, and listening to De La Soul - but after a gradual conversion, began to focus on writing and recording songs at home with his wife. His first few albums feel like the groundwork being laid for Love & War & The Sea In Between - a hauntingly honest tour-de-force that Christianity Today called "the album of the year." His songs have popped up on CBS and ESPN, and last year, he collaborated with Brooklyn's Mason Jar Music on The Sea in Between, a documentary as much about musicians and the music industry as about making music. Garrels, who is busy recording his next album, continues to live and sing according to one word; and it's not success. "Believe," he says. "And not just believe in anything. Belief in and towards the one who actually created you has power, the power to change you, power to change impossible circumstances. That is our work here on earth."
Next Week: 10 Rapping Christians Who Don't Suck (In Fact, They're Also Amazing)